Carving up the problem has driven out the answers

On Monday 21st I got some feedback from a friend on my posts on this topic. His initial reaction was, “Why don’t you just buy a Mac and stick with your iPhone contacts syncing using the Apple cloud like I do?”. I wish it was that easy and that I had the cash to switch platforms at will!

I was beginning to get the feeling that there is no simple all-embracing answer. So I decided to break the problem up into three main areas and look at the options within each: 1) What to do with the Filemaker Address List (“Addlist”), 2) Syncing the Addlist with the Email/Phone lists, 3) Syncing the email list with the phone list (the reverse is done automatically by the iPhone).

For question 1) there are a lot of options including leave it as it is; redesign it; abandon it and move the data to Excel; abandon it and move the data to another product like StatTrak; abandon it and move the data to the email system; and abandon it and throw the data away. I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend a load of time on a redesign, and that, while I still have a copy of Filemaker, I’ll just continue to use the Addlist as it is.

For question 2 (syncing the Addlist with the Email/Phone lists) the options included producing an Email/Phone csv file and syncing manually with the Addlist; combining an Addlist csv with an Email/Phone csv and checking for differences; doing an eyeball sync between the names in the Addlist and the names in the Email/Phone lists – but keeping email addresses in the email system and phone numbers in the phone; and don’t do any syncing at all. I’ve decided that I will do minimal syncing and that I will not attempt to keep emails or phone numbers up to date in the Addlist. In practice this will mean comparing the names in the Addlist and in the iPhone list once a year around Christmas time to support the sending of Christmas cards.

For question 3 (syncing the email list with the phone list) the options included producing a csv file from the iPhone and checking it against the Email list; combining the csv files from both the Email system and the iPhone and then checking for differences; and not trying to sync the two at all. I’ve decided I will do minimal syncing and will just do a check on the Email list using a csv from the iPhone once a year around Christmas time. Furthermore, if I have a choice I’ll put new emails and phone numbers into the Email system rather than the iPhone since the iPhone will replicate with the Email system but not vice versa.

A look at syncing and thoughts about what I really need

Earlier this week I searched the net for contact-related standards work and found the W3C work in progress on a Contacts API which defines the high-level interfaces required to obtain read access to a user’s unified address book [ ]. This defines a number of fields and attributes. I was unable to find anything relevant on the Dublin Core website or the ISO website.

From this initial search I conclude that a) there is unlikely to be any standard definition of all the fields I want in my address book, b) I am likely to continue to need to maintain an offline separate address book if I want to maintain special fields, c) it will probably be worthwhile trying to use terms that are standardised by W3C and/or ISO, and d) I should think carefully about what my real needs are before spending a lot of effort on upgrading my offline Filemaker address book which is custom built and is expensive to keep pace with Filemaker upgrades.

The particularly useful facilities of my Filemaker application are: 1) The ability to print a hardcopy address book, 2) The ability to manage who gets sent an Xmas card and to record who we received one from, on a year by year basis, 3) The ability to automatically search for an address, 4) The ability to print address labels, 5) The storage of addresses by family as opposed to just by individual. After thinking about this for a while it seems that all these could be achieved using Excel – though the printing of the address labels might be a bit fiddly. However, just to cover all bases I searched the net for low cost address book applications and found StatTrak which seems to possess many of the facilities I require at $29.95.

The synching, export and import facilities possessed by the iPhone, Yahoo Mail, Filemaker and StaTrak are in the table below:

Capabilities BT Yahoo iPhone Filemaker StatTrak
Syncing No Syncs with Yahoo but only one way – it does not push new info to Yahoo The Zulu app syncs with mobile devices enabling Filemaker to be the master contact list – but Zulu requires Filemaker server and costs at least $299. No
Export Yes (to various formats including CSV) Yes (via the free app ‘My Contacts Backup’ to various formats including CSV) Yes (to various formats  including CSV and Excel) Not sure
Import Yes from CSV files No Yes (from various formats including CSV and Excel) Yes from a CSV file
Field additions No No Yes No

I have drawn up a flow diagram showing how the (largely manual) synchronisation process could work between the iPhone, Yahoo and Filemaker; with a master CSV file in Excel in the middle. This has again led me to question the value of maintaining a separate Filemaker file. I feel I’m close to deciding to abandon the Filemaker address book and to move to an excel version – but I shall think it over for a day or two – and hope to be able to find someone else to bounce my thoughts off.

The challenge of keeping multiple address books in sync

If you have a contact list in your email system and another in your mobile phone, you’ll be aware  of the desirability of keeping both lists in synch. However, if you also have an address book with some additional non-standard fields on your PC, the problem is even greater. Ideally it would be best to have just one address book – but mail and phone systems aren’t generally set up to do that, let alone being capable of including non-standard fields. So, the challenge is how to keep all the information you need in sync across these multiple systems with the least effort and keeping errors to a minimum.

My particular circumstances are that I have an email account with BT Yahoo, an iPhone, and a PC-based address book in a Filemaker database. The iPhone seems able to draw contact details from BT Yahoo, but BT Yahoo doesn’t seem to be able to do the reverse. Neither Yahoo nor the iPhone allow non-standard fields to be created so I can’t just ditch the Filemaker database.

I’m thinking of exploring a number of avenues. One is the use of the export and import facilities across all three systems. Another is the possibility that there may be an official standard for contact list fields and integration facilities. And another is the use of macros in Filemaker to try and automate the synching process. If you’ve got any experience or ideas on the subject please reply to this post or drop me an email.